Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Solid Ground

(by Tom Fitzhugh)

[About the Author: Tom Fitzhugh is a maritime attorney and adjunct college professor in the Diocese of Texas. He is also a member of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, where he served on the vestry, has been a Lay Reader/Worship Leader for 30 years, and a LEM/EM since that was first allowed in his diocese. He served two terms on the Executive Board of the Diocese of Texas and has been elected six times as a lay alternate deputy to General Convention. His wife volunteers in the Cathedral Bookstore and sang with the magnificent choir for nearly 20 years. Tom and his wife have two wonderfully grown children who also live in Houston, where one is a corporate litigator and the other teaches world geography and coaches volleyball and soccer in high school.]

In the early '80s one Sunday I noticed a new face at the 11 am service. Introducing myself, I invited him to the coffee hour, where I lingered waiting for Jan to change after choir practice. He was a young banker from Tennessee who regularly attended St. John the Divine. Though I'm not sure what prompted Larry Benfield to come that Sunday, everything clicked, and soon he had transferred to the Cathedral. He got involved as a lay reader and LEM, and soon was a regular of a weekly morning Bible study that included five regulars – two priests, two men, and one remarkable retired school teacher, Eleanor Munger.

Eleanor, a grandmother, deserves her own post. After she retired from teaching Montessori for nearly 50 years, she became concerned about the loneliness and suffering of the young men dying then of AIDS (this was the early '80s). With encouragement from then-dean Pittman McGehee, at age 76 she started Omega House, which has provided compassionate care for people in the final stages of AIDS. This was the first public outreach to these suffering and hopeless ones by any organization in Houston, and Eleanor was its shining light until her death. Her efforts show just how much impact one dedicated person can have. She had absolutely nothing but time and love to give, but her passion and ministry drew others with resources to support her and this wonderful project which is now in its 20th year. The Cathedral’s website provides this description: “Originally founded in 1986 by Eleanor Munger, a then retired 76-year-old Montessori schoolteacher, Omega House opened its doors to respond to the devastation of terminally ill AIDS patients discharged from the hospital with nowhere else to go. Christ Church Cathedral provided the initial resources to create this residential hospice that has been the final home to over 800 men and women who have lost their life to HIV/AIDS-related illness. Today Omega House continues Ms. Munger's original mission of providing a safe and loving home to people who need compassionate care as they complete their life's journey.”

As Larry worked his way into parish life, he was "rewarded" with chairmanship of the Every Member Canvas, and then was elected to the vestry. Then suddenly he resigned from the vestry and enrolled in Virginia seminary. Larry, originally from Kingston, Tennessee, thrived in seminary and graduated towards the top of his class. He was ordained at the Cathedral in 1990 and assigned as chaplain at A&M. Two years later, as Ben Benitez's blackshirts were at the height of their power, Bishop Maze of Arkansas stole Larry away to Arkansas.

Last fall, I was surprised to see his name included on a list of four nominees to be considered for diocesan bishop in Arkansas. A few days before the vote, Larry sent me an incredible e-mail telling me that I was the primary reason he was introduced to and made to feel at home in the Cathedral, which was a turning point in his life. On November 11th, on the third ballot, he was elected bishop, and I got one of the first e-mails from him after that, inviting me to the consecration in Little Rock, which happened yesterday.

There's not much maritime work in Little Rock, though there is a river, and it's not a very big town. My schedule only allowed a day trip, although Larry invited me to a whole weekend of activities surrounding the trip. I haven't been there in decades, but it's still a small town. No church was big enough for the crowd, so the gym at the spiffy Episcopal Collegiate School was turned into a church for the consecration.

The night before the event I found a website description of the whole affair, and it said tickets were needed. I didn't have one, so I was a bit worried about having a seat. Larry asked me to find him when I arrived, so I did. After a bear hug, he told me he had a special seat on the 2nd row with my name on it, so I didn't need a ticket. Turns out I was next to two of Larry's long-time friends, both readers (i.e., graders) of the General Ordination Exams (GOE).

By my estimate, about 2,000 folks were at this service, which absolutely filled the gym to overflowing. Click here to see tne Episcopal News Service story and photographs. It was a moving experience with a lot of music quite appropriate to the Bible Belt setting. A couple of the spirituals had everyone, including our Presiding Bishop, tapping or nodding to the beat – that music just amplified the wonderful spirit in that place. My seat was about 10 feet away from the Presiding Bishop and other consecrators, and Larry asked me to be one of the oblationers. The sermon was preached by Larry's younger assistant at his current church, and it was truly excellent, focusing on Epiphany and the ability of God to use us where we are to reach other to others. The sermon had a lot of good humor in it, and the Presiding Bishop laughed heartily with everyone else. The whole service lasted about two hours, after which I got to visit with our new Presiding Bishop, whom I found to be very intelligent with a great personality too. She's got a really big job to do, and from all I've heard about her, she is well-qualified to do so.

Larry is the first person I've known from laity all the way to bishop, which my adult son says must make me feel real old. In a way I do, but I feel even more grateful for the experience. And it just shows how important a Sunday morning greeting may be to a newcomer.

How I wish those folks in Falls Church or Plano could have been there - not a single word about sex; the gymnasium of the Episcopal Collegiate School was overflowing, and the good will and love was abundant.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori showed a really wonderful side to her personality – laughing, smiling, leading – and of the thousands present, I heard nothing but compliments about her, and these aren't exactly the Upper East Side types. In the heartland this part of our church seems vibrant, with a highly-regarded young bishop. I thought of so many of my Episcopalian brothers and sisters as I visited with ++Katharine after the service and told her that we were all praying for her and especially for her trip to Tanzania next month. She was genuinely appreciative, and I felt really lucky to have the chance to meet her in this setting.

Each morning I awake with a grateful heart that so many of us across the land - from Hawaii to Vermont - are joined in an earnest effort to enact the Great Commission, weak vessels though we are.



Blogger David Huff said...

Great post, Tom! Our church is better for you being in it. Thanks!

(Tom, as some of you may know, is a frequent, and to me, extremely valued, contributor to the HoB/D mailing list. His comments there are always full of inspiration and good sense.)

1/11/2007 12:16 PM  

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